Our month in Thailand began in the north with Chiang Mai. Although it’s Thailand’s second biggest city, Chiang Mai is a pretty relaxed place with a large university student population. Chiang Mai also seemed to be a popular spot for young foreigners to base themselves for several months and teach English. We actually met several American couples in their mid-fifties who had come to Thailand to visit their son or daughter – for many of them, it was their first time out of the States (or maybe Mexico).
Chiang Mai is surrounded by hillsides, so the trekking, white-water rafting and elephant encounter opportunities are practically endless. Since we’d done all of these things already along the way though (oh, the hardships of travelling for 10 months), we decided to spend our time in Chiang Mai in Chiang Mai. So we toured some temples, visited some markets, took a cooking class and got some massages. Of course we had already done many of these things as well, but it must be said that the cooking class was our favourite thus far (because Thai food has been the best so far and we got to cook six different dishes each) and there is simply no such thing as too many massages.
Unfortunately while in Chiang Mai we developed a bit of a habit of showing up late to some of the evening entertainment venues. First, when we tried to catch the ladyboy cabaret, we ordered a beer each before realizing the show had already ended. This left us sitting in a nearly empty bar surrounded by overly friendly ladyboys vying for a picture together in exchange for a few baht – thankfully it’s no problem to leave a bar with a full beer in hand. Second, when we tried to catch a muay thai (kick boxing) fight, we arrived in time only for the main event which ended up lasting only a round and a half – thankfully we didn’t pay full price for our ticket.
Although we didn’t have the best luck in the entertainment department, we did have some incredible food while in Chiang Mai. Oh, the curries, the noodles, the soups… from the hole-in-the-walls to the fancier spots, nearly everywhere we ate was a culinary delight. Did we mention yet that Thai food has been the best so far?
After a few nights in Chiang Mai, we picked up a rental car and headed out on a six day road trip through the Mae Hong Son Province. Referred to as the Mae Hong Son loop, the 589km trip starts in Chiang Mai, passes through Pai, Mae Hong Son (the capital of the province with the same name) and Mae Sariang, and then ends back in Chiang Mai. Although the distances between each town wasn’t that long, the road was incredibly winding – there are 1,864 bends (many of them switchbacks) between Chiang Mai and Pai alone. Luckily for everyone, Ashley did all of the driving, especially since they drive on the left hand side of the road in Thailand! Of course the scenery along the way was fantastic, but, as was the case in Laos, many of the views were obscured by smoke from slash and burn agriculture.
We drove on four of the six days that we had the car and never spent more than four hours on the road. Our first stop was über-popular Pai (population 2,000). A former hangout almost exclusively for hippies, it seems that eclectic Pai now has more tourists than residents. After only two nights in town we feel quite confident in saying that Pai’s idyllic setting has been ruined by the number of tourists, particularly when compared to the number of locals. We spent our one full day in Pai trying to escape this circus by going on a self guided hike to a waterfall. Unfortunately we never made it to the falls as the hike ended up being much longer than we had been told and after seeing a few snakes along the way, there was no way we were going to hike in the dark. We felt better after learning that we weren’t the only group to have turned back, in fact it seems that only one couple made it to the falls that day.
From Pai we headed to Mae Hong Son (population 6,000) where we had planned on spending only a night. After checking into a beautiful resort right on the edge of a national park though, we quickly decided to spend two nights. While in Mae Hong Son, we took a stroll through town, went for a walk in the national park (this time finding a waterfall) and relaxed by the swimming pool. For being only a couple hundred kilometres apart, Mae Hong Son was a surprising contrast to Pai – it was quiet and there was rarely a tourist in sight. Being so close to Myanmar, Mae Hong Son also has Burmese influence, evident in both the design of its temples and the food.
From Mae Hong Son we drove further south to Mae Sariang (population 20,000) for a one night stopover. Although we didn’t get an opportunity to see much of little-visited Mae Sariang, its riverside setting and quiet atmosphere can only be described as serene (especially when a beer and a sunset are involved).
On our last day with the car we hightailed it back to Chiang Mai where we would spend one last night before flying south for a little island time.
Best stays: We enjoyed all of our accommodation along the loop – Family House @ Pai, The Fern Resort and Riverhouse Hotel.
Best eats: The food we cooked with Zabb-E-Lee Cooking Class as well as Dash and Cooking Love, all in Chiang Mai.